What is spruce resin?
Spruce resin is a thick, sticky fluid extracted from spruce trees. It is excreted through specialized structures located both in the interior and on the surface of the trunk. Its chemical composition only began to be uncovered through the development of spectrometry and chromatography - the knowledge of mechanisms through which the resin is excreted, and through the development of electron microscopy and its uses in botany. Today we know that conifer resinconsists of volatile components, mainly monoterpenes (α-pinene, β-pinene, and limonene) which play an important role in the defence against insects and pathogens, and non-volatile components composed of diterpene acids (abietic acid and others). The non-volatile components are what give resin its viscosity (1).
The ability to preserve biological structures (a natural preservative)
Fossilized resin which has undergone a long process of polymerization and is more than 40,000 years old is known as amber. Resin is thus a powerful natural preservative and has the ability to preserve biological structures so that the organisms trapped in amber remain practically unchanged over millions of years. With the help of transmission electron microscopy, it is even possible to see the cell organelles (e.g. the nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria) in a 40 million-year-old fly, trapped in amber (1). However, the reason for this ability is still unknown.
Already Hippocrates (460-370 BC), the father of medicine, in his works described various methods of using spruce resin, which were successfully used by doctors all until the Middle Ages (2). The records of Pliny the Younger (61-113 BC), a Roman politician, speaker and writer, say that the Roman peasant women wore amber medallions not only as adornments, but also as a remedy for “swollen glands and sore throat and palate”. The healing properties of spruce resin were also described by the Persian physician Ibn Sina at the beginning of the first Millennium (2). Records from the early 16th century say that Albert of Brandenburg, the first Duke of Prussia, sent Martin Luther medicine made from solidified conifer resin for the treatment of kidney stones (2).
Spruce resin has been used by the American Indians (9) for the treatment of skin injuries (cuts and bruises) and, in Finland, a traditional concoction of spruce resin and butter has been used (4) for the same purpose.
Contemporary folk medicine has maintained its tradition of using spruce resin for the treatment of bruises, arthritis, boils, burns, colds, tuberculosis, cough, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, throat infections, rheumatism, kidney stones, tumours and wounds (8). In the 1870s, the Canadian chemist Henry R. Gray started making Gray’s Syrup of Red Spruce Gum as an effective remedy for coughs, colds, loss of voice, bronchitis and all throat and lung afflictions. Slovene farmers have also used resin to treat mastitis in cows and other diseases in livestock and humans. In the Gorenjska region, this concoction was named “Smrdljivec” (Stinky). The Slovene herbalist Father Simon Ašič also wrote about the beneficial effects of spruce resin, saying that it can be used to strengthen the immune system and treat muscle aches, skin diseases, rashes and wounds (10).
The effectiveness of the traditional concoctions of spruce resin and butter used in Finland to treat wounds and ulcers has prompted a series of scientific studies on this complex natural product:
In a 6-month study (Sipponen et al, 2007) conducted in 11 medical institutions, a traditional spruce resin concoction was compared with the medically recognized hydrogel for the treatment of bedsores. During the study, the success rate with patients in the group that was treated with the concoction of spruce resin was 92% while the success rate with patients in the other group was 44% (5).
The same researchers used routine microbiological methods to test the antimicrobial activity in the same spruce resin concoction. The concoction proved to have a bacteriostatic effect against all the tested Gram-positive bacteria and against Proteus vulgaris, which is a gram-negative bacterium. A very important discovery was that it even had a bacteriostatic effect against very resistant bacteria such as MRSA and VRE (6).
In a study on the antimicrobial properties of spruce essential oil, conducted by the Bosnian researchers Kalaba, Djurdjevic Milošević and Marjanović Balaban (2009), it was found that spruce essential oil is even more effective than antibiotics in the treatment of infections caused by bacteria such as Salmonella enteritidis, Escherichia coli, Bacillus subtilis and Staphylococcus aureus (11).
In 2011, the aforementioned Finnish researchers went on to study the effectiveness of spruce resin as an antifungal medicine and it was found that resin has powerful antifungal properties, effectively destroying all types of dermatophytes (fungi that cause the majority of skin, hair and nail infections in humans) (12).
- Jean H. Langenheim. (2003). Plant resins – Chemistry, evolution, ecology, ethnobotany.
- Grimaldi, D. A. (1996) Amber - Window to the past. Am. Museum of Natural History, New York.
- Weitschat W., Wichard W.. (1998) Atlas der Pflanzen und Tiere im Baltischen Bernstein. München: Pfeil.
- Sipponen A, Jokinen JJ, Sipponen P, Papp A, Sarna S, Lohi J. (2008) Beneficial effect of resin salve in treatment of severe pressure ulcers: a prospective, randomized and controlled multi-center trial.British Journal of Dermatology 1055-62.
- Sipponen A, Rautio M, Jokinen JJ, Laakso T, Saranpä P, Lohi J. (2007) Resin salve from Norway spruce – a potential method to treat infected chronic skin ulcers? Drug Metabolism Letters 143-5.
- Rautio M, Sipponen A, Peltola R, Lohi J, Jokinen JJ, Papp A, Carlson P, Siponen P. (2007) Antibacterial effects of home-made resin salve from Norway spruce (Picea abies). APMIS 335-40.
- Sipponen A, Jokinen JJ, Lohi J. (2007) Resin salve from the Norwegian spruce tree: a "novel" method for the treatment of chronic wounds.Journal of Wound Care 72-74
- Duke, J.A., Wain, K.K.. (1981) Medicinal plants of the world.Computer index with more than 85,000 entries. 3 vol.
- Erichsen-Brown, C. (1989)Medicinal and other uses of North American plants: a historical survey with special reference to the eastern Indian tribesCourier Dover Publications.
- Ašič, S. (1987-1995)Pomoč iz domače lekarne.Ljubljana. 4 vol
- V. Kalaba, D. Đurđević Milošević, Ž. Marjanović Balaban. 2009. Antibakterijsko dejstvo eteričnog ulja smrče (picea abies) na različitim mikrobiološkim podlogama.
- Rautio M at al. 2011. In vitro fungistatic effects of natural coniferous resin from Norway spruce (Picea abies)